NBA

Does tanking work in the modern NBA?

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Danny Ainge, Justin Zanik and the rest of the Utah Jazz front office determined it was time to start over. After trading Rudy Gobert for a package that includes a significant amount of draft picks, the Jazz appear intent on doing the same with Donovan Mitchell. They’ll probably go that route with all the veteran players they can.

Does that mean Utah is tanking?

Yes. It probably is. Danny Ainge is intentionally cleaning up Utah’s roster of talented players that fit a team trying to win now and replacing them with younger players and draft picks. Losing many games this season is likely to be the intended result, as it will increase the chances of getting a first pick in the next draft. The 2023 NBA Draft is considered one of the best in many years, and Utah already has three first-round selections to make. They might get even more, depending on future trades.

Let’s be clear. Tanking doesn’t just mean being bad. Teams like the Sacramento Kings have proven that. Teams can get stuck in limbo by making quick moves to win now. They’re getting too good to get top picks but too bad to make the playoffs.

A good tank involves a full-strength youth movement. It means pushing development rather than victories. That means trading veterans for picks and young talent, regardless of how that affects the team’s record.

Hypothetically, tanking is the way to restart your roster and build it from the ground up, starting with high-end young talent. The Jazz plan to build through the draft while maintaining the flexibility to acquire talent through trades and free agency. The goal of each team is to get real superstar players. For a team in Utah, that type of player is unlikely to come in free agency, and they’re rarely available in trades. The draft is where they can be found for anyone. Utah hopes to find its superstar in the draft and then build a contender from there. Will it work?

Recent examples

To determine tanking success, I found the most recent examples of teams doing what the Jazz do. That means teams that were competitive, traded or lost their stars and veterans, and prioritized draft picks in their trade returns. Many of these teams are still rebuilding, so the outcome is yet to be determined. Their trajectory, however, can give us an idea of ​​what to expect.

Boston Celtics

Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The most notable example is the Boston Celtics, which Danny Ainge coached during their rebuild. After winning the 2008 NBA title, the Celtics were on a slow decline. Rather than wait for the inevitable fall from grace, Ainge decided to trade his veteran stars in a 2013 blockbuster that landed four first-round picks in Boston. Over the next few years, the Celtics drafted Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum. They slowly but surely accumulated more talent and built around that core. Although they made some missteps along the way, they were able to stay afloat with their top-notch talent in those drafts. It all culminated in an appearance in the finals just a month ago. This team still looks like a legitimate contender with no looming end in sight.


Memphis Grizzlies

Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Memphis Grizzlies - Game 2

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When the Memphis Grizzlies’ “Grit’n’Grind” era was coming to an end, the Grizzlies put Marc Gasol and Mike Conley on the trade block. Although they received only a few first-round picks in the Conley trade and none in the Gasol trade, they also got moveable assets and flexibility. They embraced a fast tank, hit the lottery, and ended up with the number two pick overall. With that, they chose Ja Morant. During this period they also drafted Jaren Jackson Jr, Desmond Bane and other key players. They grew together and organically created a playoff team. Last season, Memphis finished 2nd in the Western Conference. The Grizzlies are still very young and may reach greater heights, but they are clearly moving in the right direction.


Cleveland Cavaliers

Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Portland Trail Blazers

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In 2018, LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the second time. They went from the NBA Finals to a 19-63 record in a single season. They had no choice but to rebuild from scratch. Being on the bottom meant they had some top picks in the drafts. They picked Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and others with those picks. They also packaged veteran players to acquire Jarrett Allen, another solid piece for their young core. Now they are in their upward growth, preparing to contend for the playoffs. Mobley looks like a serious showpiece, while Garland and Allen are arguably all-star caliber players right now. Cleveland is in the midst of rebuilding, moving from the lottery to the playoffs. This upcoming season could show us how successful the rebuild has been.


New Orleans Pelicans

Dallas Mavericks vs. New Orleans Pelicans

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The New Orleans Pelicans are another team that recently found themselves in the position of a star player demanding a trade. In 2019, New Orleans traded Anthony Davis to the Lakers in exchange for a huge trade package highlighted by Brandon Ingram. The package also included three first-round picks, multiple pick trades, and other young players. Over the next few years, New Orleans began to rebuild and struck gold by winning the top pick in the lottery. With that pick, they chose Zion Williamson. Although Williamson struggled to stay healthy, he looked as advertised as he played. Despite his injuries, the Pelicans have grown and developed to the point of making the most recent playoffs. If they continue to grow in better health, they could cause problems in the West.


Houston Rockets

Atlanta Hawks vs. Houston Rockets

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The Houston Rockets have long been in the Western Conference playoffs. At their peak, they won 65 games and were only a few three missed out on the final. When their run ended, they accepted that reality and traded their star players for as much young talent and draft capital as possible. They fell to the bottom of the league in regular season records and began picking talent through the lottery. The Rockets have amassed a wealth of young players, headlining Jalen Green and Jabari Smith. Houston is still in the early stages of rebuilding. At this point, they have enough talent to really try to win games, but their youth will likely keep them in the lottery. As Green, Smith and others grow and improve, this team will move up in the playoffs.


Oklahoma City Thunder

2022 Las Vegas Summer League - Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Houston Rockets

Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The Oklahoma City Thunder is the most recent example of a team swapping stars and adopting a tank. In the summer of 2019, Paul George conspired with Kawhi Leonard to reunite in Los Angeles. He asked for a trade, and the Thunder agreed, on the condition that they get a great return for him. In that trade, Oklahoma City received a whole host of picks, along with youngster Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Then they looked to trade Russell Westbrook and the rest of their veterans. After a year of brokerage deals across the league, accepting bad contracts and then sending them off as better trade chips, the Thunder have managed to rack up a historic number of first-round picks. They’ve done it so successfully that it’s become a joke in the league that the Thunder will be the only team to select players in the upcoming drafts. By the time they started making these choices, they had already struck many times. Josh Giddey looks like a star in the making, and rookie Chet Holmgren is seen as a potential game changer. All the while, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has improved his game to near-star level. OKC still has a ridiculous number of first-round picks at their disposal and will likely continue to rebuild for a few more years. They can have a stacked squad of young stars when they end up pushing for discord.

So it works ?

The short answer is yes.

If the goal is to rework a roster in a way that maximizes talent, then yes, tanking works.

Does that mean tanking is a surefire way to build a competitor? No, but if you’re not a team that superstars force their way into, then there’s no surefire way to build a contender. Recent examples show that tanking is a viable and recommended strategy for acquiring high-level talents. While some of these teams are already past the rebuilding stage, and others are just getting started, each of them has at least one player who is already, or could easily become, a true centerpiece around which to build. They also all have at least one other player who can be All-Star level and more assets to keep improving their rosters. The goal is to find franchise-changing talent. For teams like Utah, the best way to do that is to draft it.

Of course, this strategy relies on the teams ability to write successfully, which is impossible to predict, but the idea is to get as many chances of success as possible. It’s hard to find gold in a single attempt, but if you mine regularly, your chances of finding it increase dramatically. The Jazz currently have 12 first-round picks in the next seven drafts, including three next year. That’s a lot of bites to the apple, and they still have plenty of veteran players to trade for more picks.

It takes patience, perseverance and a bit of luck, but that’s how it is in the NBA. When a title window closes, this is one way to reopen it. More and more teams are going down this route and it is hard to dispute the results.

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